- Historic Sites
How To Raise A Family On $500 A Year
A REMARKABLE SOCIOLOGICAL EXPERIMENT SHOWED YOU COULD DO IT—IF YOU COULD STAND IT
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Having decided in favor of a detached house rather than an apartment, Davis asked architects and faculty members of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to draw up plans for a two-story frame cottage, 20 feet wide by 28 feet deep. The design of the house itself, as she would learn, seemed to excite more interest on the part of exhibit visitors than any other element of the experiment. Planned to fit the 25-foot-wide lot common in American cities, the modest dwelling contained, on the ground floor, a living room about 13 feet square, a slightly smaller kitchen, and a bath complete with tub and water closet. The upstairs contained a front bedroom about 11 by 13 feet, two somewhat smaller children’s bedrooms, and no plumbing. The floor plan contained 1,120 square feet overall and about 900 square feet of living space. The size was extremely spartan by the standards of affluent people in the 1890’s (but ironically close to that of new townhouses sold to the well-to-do in the Chicago of 1981). The experimental house offered little innovation in materials or design, but Katharine Davis and the Pratt designers were chiefly concerned with not exceeding the $1,000 limit which Davis had determined to be the average cost of such rental buildings.
Their exceptionally practical house had, however, certain features that fascinated visitors. For instance, proper sanitation was, with good cause, a preoccupation of the era, and, within the budget, room was found for indoor plumbing and “traps … of the best sort.” The kitchen sink and bathroom fixtures stood on opposite sides of the same wall to reduce plumbing costs. This arrangement offered the added dividend of close proximity between the bathtub and the kitchen range boiler, which saved the mother many steps with hot pails. The house was provided with ample windows for good ventilation, and Davis saw the living room fireplace chimney, which some may have criticized as a luxury, as another ventilator. Generous closet space, one of the house’s small amenities, provoked at least “one careful builder” to remark that “it is entirely unnecessary and too expensive to give a laboring man so many closets. ”
Other carefully thought-out details included the finishing of floors (paint wore better than stain), the use of paint rather than wallpaper (paint was more expensive but could be kept sanitary), and even the finish of the balustrade (oil was better than varnish as it did not show “every knock and scratch”). The house was to be heated by the kitchen range, the fireplace, and stoves. The $30 allotted in the family budget for fuel was to cover the cost of coal, wood, kerosene, or gas, for heat and light. The allowance appears ample for a period when anthracite coal was less than $2 per ton.
So popular was the simple design of the model house that copies of the plans sold briskly at 25 cents a set. To furnish the house, Davis allotted $300. The figure was partly arbitrary, of course, but she imagined the case of a young couple engaged to be married. Both worked, the laboring man at $500 a year; the woman, a house servant, at $3 a week and board. In two years, Davis imagined, these two could save $400, of which $100 would be set aside for a rainy day. The other $300 would go to furnishings. “Certainly, most young working people begin with less. We are imagining the ideal thing,” she wrote.
Davis demonstrated an imposing attention to detail in this branch of “ecology.” She divided expenditures into eight broad categories: sitting room furniture, front bedroom, back bedroom, house linen, bedding, kitchen furniture, tableware, and kitchen utensils. Lists of what everything had cost were posted at appropriate places in the exhibit. Below are two brief samples:
The total came to $291.38, nearly nine dollars below budget. In choosing furniture, Davis emphasized durability, simplicity, and plainness. Two single iron bedsteads were better than a wooden double one, even though they cost more, because “they will last a lifetime and can easily be kept clean.” Besides, “single beds are much more healthful and are particularly desirable for hard-working people who need to sleep undisturbed, as the restlessness of one will not then trouble the other.”
The same attention to detail was spent on clothing. Here the problems included normal wear and tear and the budgetary limit of $100 per year. Since almost all outer garments except those purchased for the man and boy were to be made by the woman, Katharine Davis’ lists contained mostly bills for material. For example:
Similarly, Davis meticulously priced all needed clothing for man, woman, and—adding a fourth child—a girl of ten years, a boy of eight years, a girl of five years, and a baby, estimated the expected life-span of each garment, and figured an annual cost. The five-yearold was very inexpensive, most of her clothing being made over from the mother’s and sister’s castoffs. A yearly cost for the baby was not calculated, his outfit being treated as a one-year expense (one dozen new diapers @ $0.96, one dozen old diapers @ $0.00, six slips @ $1.34, etc.). The summary of clothing for the family was only slightly over budget: Cost for 1 year Man $ 29.21